I'll give Sonic Team (Sonic Riders + Riders Zero Gravity) and Traveler’s Tales (Sonic R) credit for trying to take the kart out of the mascot kart-racing genre, but the truth of the matter is all of those games were sort of terrible. Kart racers featuring Diddy, Crash, Jak, and, of course, Mario are celebrated and beloved by the gaming community, where as Sonic's cache of attempts have been collected into a box and labeled "do not open." At this point you'd think it would be impossible to translate Sonic into a good racing game, but the folks at Sumo Digital injected a generous helping of Sega's other properties, threw them all back into karts, and cranked out Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing. Shockingly, this worked out for the better.
Mario Sonic Kart
Have you ever played a Mario Kart game before? Yeah? Great, because Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing, from a mechanical standpoint, skips clever homage and feels closer to a confident facsimile. You have weapon pickups that fire projectiles, place mines, and disorient the player, along with boost areas at ideal spots in the race course. On top of that you have the drift mechanic, which provides a turbo boost corresponding to how long you held your drift. Then you take a treasure chest of franchise nostalgia, slap the characters in karts and transform themes/settings into racetracks, bake for twenty minutes, and then, viola, you've got a by-the-numbers kart racer.
While the previous paragraph might come off as a poorly written complaint, much of it actually works in the game's favor. At first grip, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is instantly familiar. Gameplay is far from intimidating, and the ease of drifting begs the player to try and slide around every corner. The beginner mode caters generously toward the game's younger-skewed audience, but the two difficulties do well accommodate former Sega fanboys (such as yours truly). It should be noted, however, that difficulty doesn't so much lie in proper course navigation as it does dealing with the pure bastardry unleashed by your fellow racers. AI rubber banding and item spamming can be quite frustrating but, thankfully, both can be turned off in the options menu.
Track design is a make or break point for racing games, but Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing tips comfortably on the side of competent. The 24 tracks are pulled mostly from Sonic Heroes, but a handful also show up from Billy Hatcher and the Giant Egg, Super Monkey Ball, Jet Set Radio Future, Samba de Amigo, and House of the Dead (mysteriously renamed "Curien Mansion," likely to try and dissociate itself from the M rated game). From a pure racing standpoint, the game doesn't really pull any punches, most tracks fall into a turn/obstacle/jump arrangement, though I found the Monkey Ball tracks particularly excelled at crafting a challenging, if not slightly annoying, course.
It would all start to feel a bit underwhelming if not for the magnificent art direction. The tracks may all feel the same, but the dazzling aesthetics are nearly enough to make you forget about the lack of differentiation. Sonic's tracks feature all the loops, twists, and turns through fire and water we've come to expect, but the series-favorite casino courses are the star of the show. At Casino Park, for example, the giant pool balls follow you throughout the course, down the roulette wheel, and through a poker table (and it’s a ton of fun, which is startling when you remember how dreadful the Casino levels were in Sonic Heroes). Curien Mansion has a great haunted house vibe, and seeing Jet Set Radio briefly resurrected was really cool, but the most delightful courses in the game were those from Samba de Amigo. They're insane, and produced what one would have to assume was an accurate rendition of taking acid and driving a go cart as an anthropomorphic creature through a Mexican parade.
The characters are also considerably impressive collection. Like the courses, they're front loaded with Sonic and his questionable friends, but a couple awesome additions round out the cast. The inclusion of Ryo from Shenmue makes my heart skip a beat, with Alex Kidd, Crazy Taxi's B.D. Joe, Ulala, Fantasy Zone's Opa-Opa, and the ChuChu Rocket! mice not too far behind. The character count tops out at a quite generous 20 (+ 2 for Banjo/Kazooie and your avatar for 360 owners), but I still can't help but feel Sumo Digital denied a substantial helping of Sega's lineage. I understand having to boot M-rated representatives like Yakuza's Kazuma Kiryu or Bayonetta, but what about Hornet from Daytona USA, anyone from Virtual Cop, Temjin from Virtual On, or, hell, even Edge or Orta from Panzer Dragoon? With few exceptions, both the tracks and the general cast of characters seem to be pulled from Sega circa 1999-2005 which, while still awesome, is kind of a bummer for those of us who grew up loving Genesis or AM2/AM3 arcade games (note: downloadable content is apparently on the menu).
Character vehicles have varying attributes in speed, acceleration, handling, and turbo usage, but distinction arrives with their own specific "all star" moves. Though the end result is often an extreme burst speed and/or AI obliteration, what literally happens is the treat. Sonic goes Super and zooms past the competition, Ryo gets in his forklift and smashes people, Ulala surfs her hover-kart and throws projectiles, and the ChuChu's turn into a giant kart-toppling cat. Nearly every one of them pays homage to their (or Sega's) collective past, and they really help Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing feel thematically different from its peers.
Lookin’ for Sailors
Game modes are spread around in predictable fashion. A six tiered Grand Prix, each sporting four races, increase in challenge as you plod along. Single race, and ghost-challenging time trial are also offered, but the standout are the 64 challenges in mission mode. Though occasionally devolving into pure races, missions usually have you doing stuff like hitting gates to boost your time, trying to avoid obstacles, meeting drift or turbo goals, character specific grudge matches, or and two rather awkward boss battles. Getting an A score gets you along, but you’re encouraged to rank perfect, AAA, on each mission. Every race you complete adds points toward building your license, as well as granting you currency to unlock more characters, music tracks, and courses.
Multiplayer doesn't get as much attention as one would hope, but it's fleshed out with the basics. 4player split screen is a welcomed option, even if the battle modes don't cater particularly well to the game's physics. Online is strictly racing-only and, when I played, I didn't have any trouble finding a game. All star moves are excised from the online race interface, which technically makes sense because they would flat out break the game, but it's a shame because it removes a touch of charm and personality from the package. Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing thrives on nostalgia and those individual traces of character, rendering the plain Jane online mode serviceable at best.
Blue Motion Blur
Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is quite easy on the eyes. Each stage looks fantastic (again with the Samba stages being the most visually impressive), and flaunts its technical prowess with incredible color and detail. Sumo Digital took their time when they made the stages, and it's evident from the amount of crazy stuff happening all over the screen. Unfortunately it also comes at the cost of the frame rate, which can get pretty choppy at certain points (and is a cruel tease when it gets above 30). It's not enough to break the game, but it's disappointing when the rest of the visual package is so impressive.
The audio favors more recent Sega games, no 16-bit Sonic tracks are to be found, but a few subtle rare tracks are available (and, in the case of “Can You Feel the Sunshine?,” provide uncomfortable flashbacks to Sonic R). The WTF of the game goes to the announcer. While I can appreciate him telling me what characters are gearing up for an all star move, his lack of grammatical consistency is a bit puzzling, and some of the stuff he says sounds like it was run through one of those hilarious English->Japanese->English translators.
(Note: Xbox 360 version of the game reviewed. Playstation 3 version is nearly identical, but expect a departure on Wii and DS).